Chiropractic is form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) that was founded in the 1890s and is now the third largest of the health care professions in the U.S., Canada, and Australia (behind only traditional allopathic medicine and dentistry). According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 11% of the U.S. population (almost 32 million people) have visited a chiropractor within the last year. Chiropractic is now covered by the majority of health care plans in the U.S., and is recognized as a safe and valuable form of complementary care.
What are the principles of chiropractic?
According to the American Chiropractic Association, chiropractic “focuses on disorders of the musculoskeletal system and the effects of these disorders on general health. Chiropractic care is used most often to treat neuromusculoskeletal complaints, including but not limited to back pain, neck pain, pain in the joints of the arms or legs, and headaches.”
Chiropractic is best considered in the light of the Latin phrase primum non nocere (“First, do no harm”). It is a drug-free, non-surgical science that is recommended by many as a conservative (and thus safer and less intrusive) approach than either drugs or surgery. Doctors of Chiropractic are not licensed to write medical prescriptions or to perform surgery, and rely instead on forms of manual therapy to provide relief to their patients by improving spine and joint mobility and function. The long-term goal of chiropractic is to treat the spine and related structures and restore them to a state of balance, which will then help to re-establish normal, healthy functioning in the rest of the body.
What do chiropractors actually do?
The most common symptom reported by patients who visit a chiropractor is back pain, especially chronic pain. This is often treated by a series of spinal adjustments, in which the patient reclines on a specially-designed table and the Doctor of Chiropractic performs “hands on” manipulation of the back and extremities to gently move misaligned vertebrae and the muscles and tendons that support them back into a more normal position. Chiropractic adjustment is almost never painful, and many patients find the process not only immediately effective, but restful. Sometimes a “popping” sound – similar to cracking a knuckle – can be heard as joints are gently moved back into place.
Because the spine houses and protects the central nervous system, problems with the spine can also affect other parts of the body. Misalignments of the spine can cause “referred pain” in the extremities, or put pressure on nerves and cause headaches or other problems. Chiropractors on the whole do not treat these individual symptoms, but focus on eliminating the structural misalignments in the spine, neck and other joints that may be the root cause of the symptoms.
Just like medical doctors, many chiropractors have developed specialties, and focus on problems such as improving posture or sports medicine (especially improving performance and helping athletes overcome injuries). In addition to spinal adjustments, they also may employ massage and techniques such as infrared or electro-stimulation therapy to relax strained muscles, and can often offer advice on lifestyle choices (diet, stretching, exercise, etc.) that can help one to regain a normal state of health and prevent future problems.
Is chiropractic safe?
Because of its non-invasive, non-drug nature, chiropractic is regarded as one of the safest medical therapies in the world for the treatment of back, neck, and joint pain and headaches. Negative side effects of chiropractic are so rare as to be almost non-existent, especially when compared to statistics of side effects due to drugs and surgery.
That said, chiropractic care is not appropriate for everyone, or for all conditions. If you have osteoporosis, nerve damage, or have had spinal surgery you should check with your medical doctor before visiting a chiropractor. Naturally, you should also consult your MD if your back or neck pain is accompanied by chills, fever, sweating, or weight loss.
But by all means, if you are suffering from upper or lower back pain or neck pain (especially if it is chronic), headaches, or are experiencing tingling, numbness, or restricted movement in your arms and legs, ask your medical doctor whether a visit to a chiropractor might be beneficial. Often the answer will be yes, and the MD may even have a list of chiropractors that he or she knows and works with to refer you to.